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6 things to watch for in Bills vs. Rams | Thursday Night Football

Jordan Poyer (21) and Levi Wallace (39) tackle. Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Rams, September 27, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin
Jordan Poyer (21) and Levi Wallace (39) tackle. Buffalo Bills vs Los Angeles Rams, September 27, 2020 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin

1 - Defending champs have fared well in Week 1

The Bills might be favored by the oddsmakers in their Kickoff Game against the Rams, but recent history has told us that defending Super Bowl champs usually take care of business in Week 1. Featured in the Kickoff Game the following year, defending Super Bowl champs have posted an 8-3 record in Week 1 since 2010.

The Bills are fully aware of the atmosphere they'll be immersed in leading up to kickoff for that game with the Rams raising their Super Bowl banner in a pregame ceremony. They're focus is to compartmentalize their responsibilities within the game plan and separate from the pomp and circumstance that will dominate the lead up to the game.

"It's just another game," said Josh Allen. "We understand there's going to be a lot of people watching. It's an anticipated wait to the NFL season. We're excited for it, and I know the Rams are excited for it. Going in to play the defending Super Bowl champs and watching them raise their banner, that'll be an interesting feeling for sure. And I've talked to a few people that have played and coached in this game before and just really the unanimous thing that they were talking about was it feels like a playoff atmosphere. So, we've got to understand that going in, not get too high, not get too low, understand the flow of the game and just try to put our best foot forward and try to win the game."

Defending Super Bowl champions have won each of the last four season kickoff games. The last defending champ to drop their season opener was New England when they lost the 2017 opener to Kansas City (42-27).

In addition, Rams head coach Sean McVay is 5-0 in his career in season openers and 14-3 in the month of September since 2017. L.A.'s winning percentage of .824 over that stretch and their points per game average of 32.2 both rank second in the league over the last five seasons.

2 - The Von Miller effect

Von Miller unquestionably had an impact on the Rams roster when he joined the club midseason via trade, especially on perennial Pro Bowl DT Aaron Donald. Yes, Miller produced on the field personally, but he raised the level of Donald's play down the stretch. Donald's sack and quarterback hit totals went up in the second half of the 2021 campaign and the playoffs.

Now a member of the Bills, will he have a similar effect on the Bills defensive front right from the jump in Week 1 against his former team? Bills head coach Sean McDermott believes that will be the case.

"I think you're talking about the impact that a player is making on a team and the influence that someone carries, in this case, a veteran player that's played at a very high level for a long time," McDermott said. "I've been really pleased with that process of him getting to know us, us getting to know him. He is certainly a phenomenal player, but he's also a phenomenal person and I think sometimes that's maybe not as celebrated. But I think he really fits into our culture, and he's really added a ton to our football team."

Against a revamped Rams offensive line that lost LT Andrew Whitworth to retirement and RG Austin Corbett to free agency, Buffalo's bigger, stronger and more athletic defensive interior combined with Miller off the edge figures to create some issues for Los Angeles in pass protection.

"The NFL is just so messy," said Miller. "I'm playing in the Super Bowl and then my first game back is right there with a new team. And that's what the fans want to see. Of course, there will be some emotions there. I respect Aaron Donald and all those guys so much. It's like, `What can I say?' There was no reason for me to leave. I just felt like this was my place to be. I've won a Super Bowl with those guys. They've earned my respect and I've earned their respect and now I'm on a new team, and I'm trying to do those same things with my colleagues here."

In two of his last four season openers, Miller has registered five sacks and seven quarterback hits, including last year's two-sack, three-QB hit performance while still with Denver.

3 - Rams O-line a work in progress

While the Bills defensive line was revamped with upgrades like Miller as well as defensive tackles DaQuan Jones, Jordan Philips and Tim Settle, the Rams might find it difficult to match what they had from long-time veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who retired. Starting RG Austin Corbett also departed via free agency to Carolina.

Starting at left tackle is Joe Noteboom, a former third-round pick out of TCU. With 17 career starts, Noteboom is by no means green, but measuring up to Whitworth is no easy task. Replacing Corbett at guard is Coleman Shelton, who has just a pair of spot starts last season in his three-year career. Los Angeles' depth was also hit when their top pick, G Logan Bruss, was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the final preseason game.

Rams radio color analyst, D'Marco Farr, a former defensive tackle, did admit there are some new pieces that have to fit together for Los Angeles in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ recently.

"The most important player on the team despite all the stars they have is Matthew Stafford and you've got to keep him upright," said Farr. "If he's getting hit, he's going to be less good on game day. Andrew Whitworth is a guy you can't replace. He's physically gifted. He's in the future Hall of Fame realm. Joe Noteboom has been Whitworth's understudy and he's been working and training for this. Nothing really can really replace that experience though. The offensive line looks good athletically and they all get the game above the neck, but Thursday night will be a test. Von Miller and Ed Oliver will be pretty scary, but I think Sean McVay knows what he has, and this is an offensive line-friendly offense anyway. So, the Bills D-line might be chasing ghosts sometimes rather than just teeing off on the Rams O-line."

Knowing the Rams do not play starters in the preseason, it might be asking a lot to expect L.A.'s new offensive line to operate like a well-oiled machine on Thursday night against a bigger, stronger and more athletic Bills defensive line than the one they had last season.

Bills hit the practice field to prepare for the NFL's Kickoff game on Thursday against the defending Super Bowl champions the LA Rams.

4 - A platoon at corner?

We witnessed some of it through the course of training camp and the preseason. Both rookie draft choices, Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford quickly moved up the depth chart where both were getting time on the field with the starting defense. By the general description of the plan for both players by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier it appears that they'll both see time on the field Thursday night.

"We're still going through the process with them," said Frazier on Monday. "They both had good training camps for us. And we'll mix it up in the ballgame and see how things are going as the game goes on."

Elam and Benford rotated in and out for one another in the preseason games with the starters on defense. It sounds as though that rotation might continue. How often and how much playing time they each get will likely be predicated on how each player is faring in their respective matchups when they are out on the field facing a formidable Rams passing game.

Frazier's nerves are also settled by the presence of veteran safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.

"It's definitely a positive to have two All-Pro safeties on the back end when you're going to be playing a rookie corner in a ballgame like this," Frazier said. "To have guys who've done it before, and done it at a high level very successfully, kind of calms the waters a little bit. And they can, in some ways, give that young corner some protection, to where they feel like, 'I'm not out here alone because of the two guys that really roam in the back end.' So, I think having those two really helps to buffer some of the angst that you might would have. We're fortunate to have them."

5 – Aaron Donald still a game wrecker

The amount of respect for three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald goes without saying. Buffalo's offensive line got a healthy feel for his abilities in their last meeting with him in Week 3 of the 2020 season. Although the Bills won the game 35-32 on a waning-second touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Tyler Kroft, Donald more than made his presence felt with six tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, a forced fumble and fumble recovery in the game.

"He's one of the best players in football," said Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. "They pose a lot of different problems, not only personnel-wise but schemes. It's a great challenge for us and something we're excited about. Looking forward to that challenge. It'll be obviously trying to slow not only him down, but that front is a very talented group. He's the guy who leads that charge. It's going to be a really good challenge for us."

Bills right guard Ryan Bates figures to draw most of the assignments on Donald, and he'll obviously get assistance from center Mitch Morse as no one can really block or contain Donald one-on-one. Bills LG Rodger Saffold was Donald's teammate for five seasons with the Rams. The hope is he can provide some insight on Donald's preferences after going against him in practice for years.

6 - Status of Rams third wideout Jefferson up in the air

Rams head coach Sean McVay has spoken about a day-by-day approach in getting the Rams' number three receiver back on the practice field. Now a month removed from a knee scope in early August, it was hoped Van Jefferson would be ready for Week 1, but Los Angeles has certainly hedged their bets on Jefferson's availability. Do the Rams err on the side of caution and wait another week to suit up their number three wideout, or do they put him out on the field in the opener?

"Sean McVay has been very tight lipped about it. He's said there's a chance," said ESPN Rams beat reporter Sarah Barshop in an appearance on the ‘Bills By The Numbers’ podcast. "Coach McVay said they're still taking it day by day. The fact that they kept seven receivers on their 53-man roster tells me that they're not going to push him back to play. They know how important he is to this offense. The way they've built the roster with so many receivers tells me they're going to make sure he's 100 percent, so they don't have to worry about re-injuring that knee. So, I don't know about Thursday night."

If Jefferson is suited up for Thursday night's game, he is expected to be a on a pitch count. And if he doesn't play at all look for Ben Skowronek to get the lion's share of Jefferson's reps on offense.

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